The story of Thomas H. Benton’s bold and thought-provoking mural is retold through the eyes of its youngest subject.
Harold Brown Jr., known as Brownie to many, is well known for two major reasons. He is a former owner of Jefferson City’s original Zesto Drive-In, a favorite ice-cream and fast-food spot, and he is also the only baby featured in Thomas Hart Benton’s renowned mural on the wall of the House of Representatives lounge located in the Missouri State Capitol. Although Brownie sold his ownership of Zesto several years ago, his image as a bare-bottomed baby having a diaper change, which was quite controversial for the time, stands immortal in Benton’s painting. Brownie tells the remarkable story of his family’s friendship with Benton and their involvement as models featured in this famous piece of art, depicting everyday scenes in the lives of early Missourians.
In 1935 Thomas Hart Benton was commissioned to paint a mural on a wall of the Missouri House of Representatives lounge located on the west side of the third floor of the Missouri State Capitol.
As a Missourian, Benton depicted his experiences growing up in the area and used those he knew or had come into contact with as subjects for his art.
In 1933, Harold William Brown, my father, was appointed adjutant general of Missouri by Gov. Park after a 30-year career in military service, most with the Missouri National Guard. After World War I, my father found it necessary to study to be a dentist after most officers were furloughed.
“At some point during his visit to our home, Benton noticed Harold Brown Jr. — me — crawling on a blanket. As he continued to sketch my father, Benton said: “General, I must put a baby in my mural. Without babies, the Western movement would have failed.”
After his appointment, duties put him in the State Capitol during the same time Benton was working on his mural. My father often passed by the doorway of the House lounge and would occasionally look inside and comment to Benton on his progress of the mural. One day Benton mentioned to my father, “General, you have an interesting face, so I would like to put you in my mural.” My father accepted the offer, and a sitting was scheduled. At the time, my mother and father lived in an apartment in the 660th block of Capitol Avenue, across from the Missouri State Penitentiary. According to my mother, Benton was a very social kind of a guy and loved to chat and indulge in a drink or two of liquor. At some point during his visit to our home, Benton noticed Harold Brown Jr. — me — crawling on a blanket. As he continued to sketch my father, Benton said: “General, I must put a baby in my mural. Without babies, the Western movement would have failed.”
Once the sketch of my father was complete, it was time for me. It is notable that Benton sketched my father on a 10-by-12 artist sketchpad. In my opinion, because he wanted an image of me in a prime position and also wanted to include a facial image, a larger pad was necessary for my sketch. Noted also, one facial was started of me and then left unfinished for some unknown reason. The second facial resulted in a detailed pencil sketch of my head and face, much the same as my father’s sketch. Benton signed both sketches. He signed my father’s sketch as “Benton,” which was normal, as with all of his signed work. My sketch is signed, “With apologies to the Browns — Thomas H. Benton.” When my mother asked Benton why he signed such a work of art the way he did, he replied, “That baby has a beautiful body, but that is my style, and that is the way I would like it to appear in the mural.”
“Benton signed my father’s sketch as “Benton,” which was normal, as with all of his signed work. My sketch is signed, “With apologies to the Browns— Thomas H. Benton.”
It should be noted that both sketches have brushstrokes of paint on them. These sketches were used as the pattern for the finished image. In my father’s sketch, Benton used colors from his suit. In my case he used blue, the color of my eyes, and flesh tones, which match my skin color. Both sketches were rolled up like a newspaper and tucked away in my father’s footlocker for years. As a youngster, I would go through the locker as my mother related to me the importance of the items. It was not until I was in my 30s that I did discover, by accident, the true importance of the sketches.
As far as I know, I may be the only living model from this illustrious mural and may be the only model who has signed sketches from Benton, which proves that my father and I are the real people in Benton’s masterpiece.
The State Capitol and the Missouri State Museum are open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Free guided tours are offered year-round. Reservations may be made online at mocapitoltours.com, or call the Missouri State Museum at 573-751-2854.